Although it’s not something that most eighth graders or any middle school students have had to deal with yet, access to alcohol and illegal drugs is something that high school students are faced with around the world. Ms. Brenda Conlan visited ASL on May 16 and 17 to talk with eighth graders about the problems that can arise from using alcohol or drugs.
Conlan explained that her goals are “to help postpone or delay the onset of alcohol use in the students I work with and to validate the kids who aren’t drinking and aren’t using other drugs, to make them feel more supported and let them know that I’m there to help kids think about the choices they’re making.”
One of her common ways of telling students about the dangers is relating common issues with some of the issues she faced as a teenager. “I talk about the vulnerability and the pain that I’ve suffered, in my family and my own life and addiction problems.” This allows her students to connect to her because it feels so relatable. She’s not just sharing stories about others or talking about the general effects of drugs and alcohol.
She chose to do her job mainly because of her issues as a teenager. “I never had a useful conversation about alcohol and other drugs as a young person,” said Conlan. This then can put her in a situation to help many kids avoiding her situation. “I try to be the adult that I didn’t think existed when I was your age which is somebody approachable but also knowledgeable.”
Many of other drug and alcohol educators use the fear factor as a tool to try and avoid these issues. Ms. Conlan uses a different approach that can explain the issues in a different way. “[I try to be somebody who] isn’t just trying to scare kids but actually trying to get them thinking and reflecting about their health.”
She describes her job as a “rodeo,” especially when dealing with kids in middle school. “I try to live in the moment and attend to whatever is happening as honestly and compassionately as I can.” She does her best to adjust and help each situation individually. “It usually works out.” Ms. Conlan said.
“Most of [my experiences] have been absolutely positive,” said Ms. Conlan. “I’m delighted and surprised all the time by how thoughtful and caring kids are about their own health, their own families [and] their friends. I’ve had very few negative interactions with students.” She tries to be very approachable for kids and that usually ends up creating positive experiences.
Ms. Conlan is away from her home 30 weeks of the year, and she is visiting schools most of the time. With all of these situations, she doesn’t always have positive experiences. “I think once kids figure out that I’m not armed and I’m there to really engage them in a friendly, honest way they really want to talk about this.”
One of the challenges in her job is due to different laws about the age in which you can drink alcohol. In the US one must be 21 years old in order to legally drink alcohol whereas in most of Europe, the age is 18 or lower. This can problematic because parents’ thoughts on alcohol in Europe can be quite different to those in the US. This is another reason why each person can react differently to her talks and groups discussions.
Conlan comes and visits ASL twice a year and does specific drug and alcohol education talks with high school sophomores and their parents. This year though she has also talked with the eighth-grade class. “Eighth grade is the oldest grade in the middle school so they’re going to be more exposed to these ideas and these behaviors than younger kids.” Ms. Conlan said. She said that eighth graders can be going through one of the biggest transitions of their life. “In middle school to high school there is a lot happening. You will be exposed to alcohol and other drug use in your high school years.”
Her whole job is to help kids learn about the issues surrounding drugs and alcohol, and the eighth grade got a taste of it. “It’s good to get you thinking now,” said Ms. Conlan.